A couple of years ago I saw ex-Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna speak in New York City, right before she donated her musical archives to New York University’s Fales Library. I was struck by her acerbic wit, her ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude.
While I was a teenager during the grunge and Riot Grrrl era, for some reason I was (at the time) more drawn to hyper-masculine, testosterone-saturated grunge and metal bands and was not that interested in what was happening on the other side of the scene. As Hanna’s talk was intriguing, I took the opportunity to check out The Punk Singer, part of the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto.
About 10 minutes into the documentary, I knew that I had made a colossal mistake.
Well, actually, as soon as I saw a snippet of 17 year-old fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson waxing poetic about an era she was not even alive to witness, I knew that I would not be able to put my personal biases in regards to my age—and more importantly, my ethnicity as a black woman—aside when watching this documentary.
From watching The Punk Singer, I realized why I had never been that psyched on the Riot Grrrl scene. It wasn’t for me. It was for white women.
In The Punk Singer, women I greatly admire, like Joan Jett, Corin Tucker, Kim Gordon and Tribe 8’s Lynn Breedlove laud Hanna’s courage and tenacity. And a great front person she is. But the film is a simplistic portrait where the flaws of both the riot grrl phenomenon and Hanna are not examined.
The film tells the interesting story of how Hanna got involved in the music scene: Hanna always knew that she was an artist, but the brutal assault of a close friend propelled her into first becoming a spoken word artist. A friend suggested that she might get more attention if she was in a rock band. Bikini Kill was anchored by Hanna’s personality, her powerful voice, and—while no one seemed to mention the elephant in the room—her beauty. She is one drop-dead-gorgeous-looking woman, both as a teenager and now as an adult. I would argue that it was her physical attractiveness helped her music get mainstream attention. Some in the film point out that some women at the time (and still) had issues with Hanna showing her body during performances, arguments Hanna dismisses as being anti-feminist.
Hanna briefly notes in the film that she used to work as a stripper. Later in the film, archived footage of a panel discussion she participated in shows her blaming the media for making accusations that she is a stripper. While being a stripper is nothing to be ashamed about, own it. In reference to that that panel, she accuses female journalists of being condescending and seems shocked that “women are doing this to other women.” That comes off as being oddly naïve and a great example of her penchant for navel-gazing: A woman who works as a stripper is taking her clothes off for the enjoyment of (primarily) men. It might be a stretch for women who have never been strippers to understand how a self-proclaimed feminist would willingly choose to put herself in a position where she is at the financial mercy of a man. While I didn’t know this until after I saw the film, there has been much consternation with punk women working as strippers. Mimi Thi Nguyen notes the discussion in her essay “Riot Grrrl, Race and Revival” (PDF) in the feminist theory journal Women & Performance: “The ‘passing thru’ of some punk women into the sex industry detrimentally alters the ‘class/ beauty standards’ (because of lifelong access to healthcare, for instance) that others whose survival depends upon an underground economy must accommodate thereafter.”
Now I remember why I never felt interested in being part of the riot grrrl scene. The film shows snippets of footage of young white women in that era, saying that the riot grrrl was a scene in which they didn’t have to fight in the mosh pit, or have men sexualize them for being at a show. For me, I was in the mosh pit, getting bruised and punched because as an individual, not as a woman, I wanted to be where the action was and even back then I knew that allies, regardless of gender, were few and far between. So I was just me. I also remembered being more fearful of being assaulted because I was black than because I was a young woman. I would have almost begged to be seen as a woman back then, but my ethnicity trumped my gender.
In Women & Performance, Nguyen writes that certain forms of rebellion performed by white women were translated differently when filtered through a racial lens.
“For instance, women of color wondered out loud for whom writing ‘SLUT” across their stomachs operated as reclamations of sexual agency against feminine passivity, where racisms had already inscribed such terms onto some bodies, and poor or criminal-class women argued that feminists ‘slumming’ in the sex industry (through stripping, for the most part) as a confrontational act implied that other women in this or other tiers of the industry were otherwise conceding to patriarchy.”
I distinctly remember the white women within the punk scene were capable of being just as exclusionary and bigoted as the men were, and among the white women I knew who identified as feminists, there was a strong sense that there was little to no concern as to how ethnicity made my experiences as a woman different than theirs. There was no knowledge, and more importantly no interest to know…well outside of Rebecca Walker, who was the right age, of the right class and most importantly, not ‘too angry’ to alienate them or challenge their naïve idealized notions about how the world works. If my ideas differed from them, guess who was wrong and who was right?
Given the lack of women of color in The Punk Singer, we were an afterthought, and from reading Nquyen’s essay, this issue is nothing new – this documentary was the latest demonstration of a woman using her societal privilege to dabble in a sub-culture and while at the film’s ending, even though she is happily married and has a family and insists that her feminist ideology still remains true—she has been able to exit into a comfortable life in which many, for instance women of color who strip for survival, cannot.
In addition, one of The Punk Singer’s interviewees Jennifer Baumgardner proclaims some revisionist feminist history: that ‘feminists’ from as far back as the 18th Century were somehow responsible for promoting racial equality during the Civil Rights era. In the States the emancipation of slavery was seen as a tool for women’s organizations to bolster their own rights and there was no activism specifically conducted to liberate black women from the physical and sexual abuse they faced at the hands of their slave owners. This offensive statement cemented what had bothered me about the Riot Grrrl scene: These women activists created a movement that was only relatable for them and there was no thought given to the inclusion of women of color. We were expected to be grateful that they were fighting for us because we shared the same lady parts. That was not—and still is not—the case.
In terms of providing a historical narrative of the Riot Grrl scene, The Punk Singer does an adequate, yet rushed job within an 80-minute film. Is Hanna iconic? For some people, she definitely is. Especially for those who do not want to either look too deep into the film, or for young, heterosexual, able-bodied white women like Gevinson who clearly romanticize that era and are looking for an icon. But I didn’t see it.